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Life During Wartime, Made Bearable By Music

There ought to be a genre called tea biscuit fiction — serving up the easily digestible comfort food of literature. And if there were, Alexander McCall Smith could fill its decorative tins with delectable goodies almost singlehandedly. At this point, the prolific retired law professor is juggling so many series — the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series, the Isabel Dalhousie Series, The Portuguese Irregular Verbs Series, and the 44 Scotland Street Series — it's a wonder he keeps them all straight.

La's Orchestra Saves the World is a self-contained stand-alone, McCall Smith's only novel (at least, to date) about Lavender Stone — La for short, like the musical note, because, as a neighbor remarks, Lav just wouldn't do for a nickname, would it? McCall Smith uses a contrived setup to frame La's story, but once he gets into it, everything goes down smoothly.

Like his private eye from Botswana, Precious Ramotswe, and his moral philosopher from Edinburgh, Isabel Dalhousie, McCall Smith's new, English heroine is an intelligent, independent woman. Even in her younger years, her primness makes her seem prematurely middle-aged. And, like so many of his characters and McCall Smith himself, she believes fervently in "the power of music. Absurdly, irrationally, she believed that music could make a difference to the temper of the world."

Briefly married after studying at Cambridge University, La spends much of her life alone, though not by choice. It's a quiet, largely uneventful existence, but the point — and this author usually has an instructive lesson or two to convey — is that she still manages to make something worthwhile of it.

La retreats from her failed marriage and World War II London to the Sussex cottage her in-laws bequeath to her. (Money and real estate are rarely a problem in these cozy tales.) She patriotically joins the Women's Land Army, doing volunteer work tending an arthritic farmer's hens. More important, she starts an amateur orchestra made up of locals and troops stationed nearby, because, "this world was a world of suffering; music helped make that suffering bearable."

One of the flutists, Feliks Dabrowski, is a Polish airman who has been shot down and assigned to help out on the same farm as La. Although she's attracted to him, their relationship remains stiff because she's gun-shy after her failed marriage. Complicating matters, she begins to suspect that Feliks might actually be German. This raises issues about where her duties lie, which is precisely the sort of moral dilemma in which McCall Smith, an ethicist, revels.

So La's Orchestra is about the evil of war and the solace of music, about mistrust and kindness and finding love in unlikely places. Little will surprise you, but you don't read McCall Smith for life-altering apercus: You read him for the comforting reassurance that even amid all the nastiness in the world, there are still civilized pockets of people for whom culture, morality and rationality matter profoundly.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.